The sixth season of The X-Files is weird. Like, really weird. Even for a series that toyed with the paranormal and extraterrestrial, the show’s swift shift in tone and format feels rebellious. The fifth season was meant to be the show’s last. But its commercial success was too sweet for Fox execs to dismiss. So, in 1998, The X-Files soldiered on. It shifted locations from Vancouver to Los Angeles, a move that showrunner Chris Carter used as an opportunity to expand the series beyond its tried-and-true procedural format.
As a result, the sixth season plays with genre, with emotional beats, and with character relationships in experimental and referential ways. The results were—excuse the pun—alienating. The show dipped in ratings, and the fans were dubious about the lighter tone. The non-mythology “monster of the week” episodes were less about monsters and more about tonal exercises. One season six episode, “Triangle,” was filmed to look like four continuous takes, in the style of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Another, “The Rain King,” was about a man who could seemingly control the weather with his emotions. It featured visual nods to The Wizard Oz. But perhaps the most bizarre episode of the season is “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” which aired 20 years ago today.
Though it wasn’t the first Christmas episode of The X-Files, it’s probably the most memorable. And it’s one of the more bizarre holiday episodes ever. It begins as so many X-Files episodes do: Mulder ( David Duchovny) hatches a plan to explore a mysterious phenomenon, and Scully ( Gillian Anderson) begrudgingly tags along. Only this isn’t a work assignment, but a personal curiosity of Mulder’s: a haunted house in Maryland where a couple killed each other in a lovers’ pact. Mulder and Scully enter the house and begin exploring, and stumble on two skeletons dressed in their own clothes. Eventually, they meet the ghostly inhabitants of the house: the lovers who murdered each other all those years ago, played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin.
The couple attempt to trap Mulder and Scully in their same eternity. They use their ghostly influence to create a smoke and mirror trick that makes Mulder and Scully appear to the other as taunting, vindictive partners. They both shoot each other. “Merry Christmas,” Scully says when she pulls the trigger. But before they can bleed out and die, Mulder realizes this isn’t real. The blood is a mirage; a mind trick the ghosts played on them. They grab each other and flee the scene. After they’re gone, the ghosts sit before a fireplace and reminisce, referring to Mulder and Scully as “lonely souls.”
But the very next scene disproves their observation. Scully shows up at Mulder’s apartment and the two exchange gifts. Lonely souls, perhaps, but lonely souls who’ve found their way to one another.
It’s an episode of The X-Files that matters a great deal to me, someone who rejects Christmas tradition. The holidays can be a grim time of year when you feel isolated, in any way, from the people around you. Scully has a family to get back to, but a family that doesn’t fully understand the complexities of her job. And Mulder chases after the paranormal as a coping mechanism to fill in the emotional gaps his dead sister and father left behind. Mulder’s journey is ostracizing, but self-afflicted. He’s been alone so long, it’s become his most comfortable condition.
But “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” shows that loneliness isn’t an absolute. The ghosts attempt to shatter the foundation that Mulder and Scully have slowly built, but they fail. Instead, the two grow closer, more familial. When Scully shows up at Mulder’s door on Christmas night, his face lights up. When he admits that he selfishly dragged her on his quest, she lets him know that she wanted to be there. For the first time in a long time, he hasn’t pushed away an important person in his life. She’s someone who doesn’t pity his peculiarities, but finds solace in them.
They’re each other’s found family, a concept that I’ve also leaned into as the years pile on, and as circumstance separates me from childhood tradition. It may take time, but it’s possible to find a tribe of like-minded people who love you like Scully loves Mulder: unconditionally. Life doesn’t have to be so lonely, especially on the holidays. Don’t listen to the ghosts.
Featured Image: Fox